June 23, 2017
Best Laid Plans: Norman Bel Geddes’s Unrealized Projects
by B. Alexandra Szerlip
“Every new thing is resisted.” —Thomas Edison, 1914
“Think different.” —Apple ad slogan, 1997–2002
“The fairy tales of the past, told to while away an idle hour with mysterious impossibilities, are outdone by the realities of the present,” reads The World’s Progress in Knowledge, Science and Industry. Published in 1902, this vast compendium goes on to say that “the men whose energy and ambition prompt them to strive patiently for mental improvement in spare hours, are few in number, compared with the vast majority content to stagnate, year after year….”
In 1902, Norman Bel Geddes was nine years old, a small-town Midwestern boy, his head already brimming with notions of supersonic aircraft and other technologies far, far ahead of any “realities of the present.”
“Prolific” is too modest a word to describe the ninth-grade dropout’s career-long output. Broadway history buffs may be aware of the 200-some plays and musicals, as well as operas, he designed. In 1927, he switched his focus from theater (though he would always return to it) to projects that sparked a fledgling profession eventually known as industrial design. In the process, he became the poster boy for, and village explainer of, “streamlining,” the first truly American visual aesthetic.
Ultimately, he’s best remembered (if at all) for Futurama, the instantly iconic, $91-million-plus (in today’s dollars) exhibit created as the centerpiece of General Motors’ 1939 New York World’s Fair pavilion (precursor to Matt Groening’s multi-award-winning animated parody). But the vast majority of Bel Geddes’s designs—production-ready, with detailed specs and blueprints—never manifested, for reasons ranging from Depression-era cutbacks and WWII politics to their being “too far ahead of their time” for industry to take them on.
The unrealized contributions of “the grand master of Modernism,” aka “the little Leonardo” aka “the Inventor of the Jet Age,” include:
Streamlined Ocean Liner: 1,088 feet long, molded depth of 120 feet, 70,000 tons displacement. Luxurious accommodations for 2,000 first-class passengers (plus a crew of 900). Twenty-four “unsinkable” lifeboats (150 people per), each with radios and two weeks’ rations. Four full-sized tennis courts; cinema; gymnasium; restaurant and dining room; spacious music room and deck games area; two-story lounge; smoking room; upper and lower deck veranda cafés; writing room; library with fireplace; sun-exposed swimming pool and sand beach; night club with open-to-the-stars dance floor. Plus automobile storage.
(Bel Geddes complained that, guided by the premise that ship passengers wished to forget they were at sea, the interiors of existing liners were cluttered with baronial halls and such (Victorian, vulgar, totally lacking in charm) — a notion as illogical, he wrote in his 1932 book Horizons, “as painting stripes on a horse and calling it a zebra.” Land architecture belonged on land; ship architecture had its own “organic” terms.)
In rough weather, a sliding or rolling “skin” encloses the exterior, keeping all decks usable and wind resistance to a minimum.
With its economy of operation and increased speed performance (an estimated 14% advantage), Bel Geddes claimed it would be more economical to build and operate than the fastest liner in service (Germany’s Bremen, which, at 938 feet, carried 811 first-class passengers, plus second-, third-, and tourist- class) and would cut transatlantic travel by some twenty-two hours.
Streamlined Motor Cars and Coaches: A series of teardrop-shaped vehicles, progressively more radical in design. Wraparound windows, some with windshields that slide vertically into the body; steering wheel directly over the forward axle; engine at the rear (lowering center of gravity, decreasing danger of overturning on high-speed curves); driving lights, connected to the steering gear, that turn with the front wheels; generous baggage space. Designed to be affordable, and with increased gas mileage over traditional vehicles.
Motor coaches included refrigerator and electric range (for hot and cold meals), bathrooms, and a news stand display.
Bel Geddes also contributed to the design of Chrysler’s controversial Airflow automobiles, vehicles vastly superior in comfort, safety, and fuel efficiency to anything else on the road in the early thirties.
Streamlined Locomotive #1: Sleek, tapered, sheathed in lightweight, rivet-less aluminum. Shatterproof, hermetically sealed windows, enlarged for greater passenger viewing. Lowered center of gravity for increased stability and speed; improved heating and cooling via a steam-vacuum method. Sofas, seventeen upholstered swivel armchairs (designed for easy cleaning), bridge tables, smoking lounge, sound insulation. A sleeping car with six large double sleeping rooms, shower, and barber shop.
Rotary Airport: Floating airport rests on a pivot, supported by columns atop buoyancy-balancing tanks that keep it level in all weathers. Rotates (with help of fully automatic, motor-driven marine propellers) to accommodate changing wind conditions. 1,500’ x 750’ landing deck that doubles back onto itself. Designed to be installed adjacent to New York City’s Battery, with corresponding terminal building (a system of moving walkways connects terminal passengers to their planes) and easy access to Wall Street.
Airliner #4: V-winged plane with a 528-foot wingspan. Sleeping accommodations for 606 (451 passengers plus 155 crew, including masseur, masseuse, doctor, barber, librarian, cooks, wine stewards, and seven musicians). Single and double staterooms with private baths. Twenty motors (plus six in reserve), each with 1,900 horsepower, 37 propellers, maximum speed 150 mph; any disabled motor replaceable within five minutes. Safety and comfort are key. Eight decks. Cafe, bar, gymnasium (with showers and dressing rooms), four tennis courts, six shuffleboard courts, dining room (transforms into a nightclub), kitchen, pantry, veranda café, twin solariums, children’s play room, library, lengthy glass-enclosed promenade deck, and offices.
With in-flight refueling over Newfoundland, Bel Geddes estimated it could travel from Chicago to London in forty-two hours. A passenger liner sailing the shorter distance between New York and London took four and a half days. (Pan Am wouldn’t inaugurate transatlantic service until 1939.) It could, he insisted, be built, equipped, and furnished for nine million dollars. And with three Atlantic crossings a week, it would pay for itself in three years, something the era’s ocean liners (which required 60 million each to build) could not do.
Bearing a striking resemblance to a B-52 Stealth Bomber circa 2003, Airliner #4 was said to have inspired Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose.
Perhaps most impressive is that all of the above (as well as many designs that were produced, like his state-of-the-art Electrolux refrigerator and ground-breaking Oriole Stove) were in Bel Geddes’s portfolio before his fortieth birthday.
There were buildings, too. (An unlicensed architect, he had a lifelong friendship with Frank Lloyd Wright.) Some were realized, most notably Manhattan’s high-end Palais Royale nightclub, J. Walter Thompson’s Multi-Use Conference Room, the Barberry Room (designed for Alex Woollcott as a decidedly upscale replacement venue for Algonquin Round Table habitues), the exclusive La Rue Restaurant, and Miami Beach’s sinuously curved, multiplex entertainment center, Copa City.
For the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, he created half a dozen radically innovative, never built theaters—Temple of Music, Open-Air Cabaret, Water Pageant Theater, etc.—each large enough to accommodate thousands. Also for the Chicago Fair were two extraordinary (never built) restaurants:
Aerial Restaurant: A 278-foot rotating tower of steel, aluminum, and glass, this would have been the first of its kind, predating Seattle’s Space Needle “Sky City” restaurant by decades.
Three cantilevered, counterbalanced levels each housed a restaurant (total capacity 1,500) with ceiling-to-floor glass walls and open-air terraces that doubled as observations decks. The decks make a full revolution every hour, offering diners a complete panoramic view of the fair site, the city, and Lake Michigan. The kitchens, stowed safely on ground level in the tower’s base, are facilitated by four dumbwaiters.
Aquarium Restaurant: Designed as a dam across a lagoon. Water falls in sheets on an overhanging glass roof, creating a transparent liquid “curtain” six inches from the windows; at night, the curtain would be illuminated by underwater lights. Seating for 650 to 800. Outside, an open-air roof café, capacity 120, would have water flowing under its glass floor.
Diners enter from a dock, then descend a circuitous maze to sixteen feet below the water’s surface, surrounded by sunlit, brilliantly hued fish—the interior walls, floor, and ceiling are all glass—the view gradually shifting to larger deep-sea creatures and accompanying aquatic plants, the water (lit from within) darkening from amber to deeper and deeper green.
Less fanciful are plans for an elaborate factory complex for the Toledo Scale Company; affordable post-WWII housing projects; the first all-weather sports stadium (for Ebbets Field); an overhaul of the moribund Hayden Planetarium (1941), both the building and the shows; a vast Ukrainian State Theatre in Kharkiv, USSR (designed for an international competition, Bel Geddes’s entry came in second; Walter Gropius’s came in eighth); and “Toledo Tomorrow,” a fifty-year master plan (complete with 60-foot model) anticipating the Ohio city’s future topography.
“Twentieth century geniuses of the machine have generally become famous to the degree that they have failed,” writes historian David Lindsay in his book Madness in the Making, “able to offer little more than their ‘credits not yet acquired’ … in the form of inventions that have never seen the light of day.” For all his fame (worldwide during his lifetime), Bel Geddes was sometimes berated for his un-produced creations more than he was credited for his considerable accomplishments. Taken as a whole, his machine designs laid the groundwork for everything from state-of-the-art domestic appliances to twenty-first-century transportation, from architectural innovations to multiplex television studios, from typewriters to computers, interactive video games to iPods.
B. Alexandra Szerlip is a two-time National Endowment for the Arts Writing Fellow who has contributed to the Paris Review Daily and the Believer, among other publications. She has worked in professional theater, and as a book editor, sculptor, and graphic designer. Her most recent book is The Man Who Designed the Future: Norman Bel Geddes and the Invention of Twentieth-Century America.